year into Donald J. Trump’s presidency, his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, sent the new commander-in-chief a startling recommendation: with nations around the world threatening to use cyberweapons to bring down America’s power grids, cell-phone networks, and water supplies, Trump should declare he
was ready to take extraordinary steps to protect the country. If any nation hit America’s critical infrastructure with a devastating strike, even a non-nuclear one, it should be forewarned that the United States might reach for a nuclear weapon in response.
Like most things in Washington, the recommendation leaked immediately.
Many declared it a crazy idea, and wild overkill. While nations had turned their cyberweapons against each other dozens of times in recent years, no attack had yet been proven to cost a human life, at least directly. Not the American attacks on Iran’s and North Korea’s weapons programs; not the North Korean attacks on American banks, a famed Hollywood studio, and the British healthcare system;
not the Russian attacks on Ukraine, Europe, and then the core of American democracy. That streak of luck was certain to end soon. But why would Donald Trump, or any of his successors, take the huge risk of escalating a cyberwar by going nuclear?
The Pentagon’s recommendation, it turned out, was the prelude to other proposals—delivered to a president who values toughness and “America First”—to use the nation’s powerful cyberweapons far more aggressively. But it was also a reminder of how quickly the fear of devastating cyberattacks has
moved from the stuff of science fiction and Die Hard movies to the center of American defense strategy. Just over a decade before, in 2007, cyberattacks were missing entirely from the global “Threat Assessment” that intelligence agencies prepare each year for Congress. Terrorism topped that list, along with other post-9/11 concerns. Now that hierarchy has been reversed: For several years a variety
of cyber threats, ranging from a paralyzing strike on the nation’s cities to a sophisticated effort to undercut public confidence in its institutions, has appeared as the number one threat on the list. Not since the Soviets tested the Bomb in 1949 had the perception of threats facing the nation been revised so quickly. Yet Mattis, who had risen to four-star status in a career focused on the Middle East, feared that the two decades spent chasing al Qaeda and ISIS around the globe had distracted America from its most potent challenges.
“Great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of US national security,” he said in early 2018. America’s “competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare,” including the newest one, “cyberspace.” The nuclear strategy he handed Trump gave voice to an inchoate fear among
many in the Pentagon that cyberattacks posed a threat unlike any other, and one we had completely failed to deter.
The irony is that the United States remains the world’s stealthiest, most skillful cyberpower, as the Iranians discovered when their centrifuges spun out of control and the North Koreans suspected as their missiles fell out of the sky.
But the gap is closing. Cyberweapons are so cheap to develop and so easy to hide that they have proven irresistible. And American officials are discovering that in a world in which almost everything is connected—phones, cars, electrical grids, and satellites—everything can be disrupted, if not destroyed. For seventy
years, the thinking inside the Pentagon was that only nations with nuclear weapons could threaten America’s existence. Now that assumption is in doubt.